Thursday, February 25, 2016

on sharing, comparing, and unplugging.

I've been wanting to quit social media for some time now. To borrow phrasing from Gretchen Rubin, who I grudgingly admit is rapidly becoming a weird sort of guru for me, I'm an abstainer, not a moderator: I don't do well trying to cut something out of my life mostly. If the cookies are in the house, I'm going to eat them all, so it's better just not to buy them in the first place (and I'm really good about not buying them, actually) rather than trying to eat, a la Frog and Toadjust one. I spend far too much of my day on Facebook and Instagram, and I really want to stop altogether to make time for what I actually love doing: reading, writing, working on my drawing and sewing projects, watching British TV mysteries and playing board games with Jason, catching up with friends in person over coffee or at book club or during craft nights.

It's that last category, though, that keeps me checking my phone for updates at all hours of the day: the isolation of living here this year. As I've written about before, it's not that I'm desperately lonely - the solitude this year has given me the head space to work on a lot of things on a personal level - but the extrovert in me craves company, and I don't want to leave behind the few threads of connection I have even in the online sense and become completely untethered for the next several months until we move home. And I'm grateful for the real life connections that social media can foster, like the amazingly kind (and brave!) woman who recognized Jason at a local coffeeshop, approached him brandishing a photo from my Instagram feed, and then invited me to a Mardi Gras cookie-decorating party, the first social event I've attended since last September.

But I think I've become more attuned and hypersensitive to the negatives of social media because of my own disgust in my reliance on it, and it's been feeling more and more like an unreality. To again reference Gretchen Rubin, scrolling through posts lately has made me feel like I'm in a "bad trance," as she puts it: "[it] often hits when I'm exhausted...I'm overindulging in something I don't even enjoy...[and when I stop] I find myself sitting with my mouth open, regretting the time I've wasted." I never have that feeling after spending 30 minutes reading a novel or playing rocketship to the moon with my daughters, but I do feel that way whenever I put down my phone or close my laptop - that I've just spent 30 minutes of time doing absolutely nothing for no real reason other than boredom and the perceived need to distract myself. "What is your 'why'?" is a phrase that gets bandied about a fair amount these days, and though it's usually meant as a way to determine what gets you out of bed in the mornings and working towards a higher cause, I think it's a good question to keep in mind in general when it comes to your online presence: why are you sharing, responding, liking, comparing, worrying, scrolling? And if you don't like your answers, what are you going to do about it?

So many blog posts have been written about the "false selves" we project online that I don't really want to bother entering that debate - it's already been done, and far more eloquently than I could ever hope to lay claim to - but I have been reflecting lately on the pressure that it puts on us all in a way that previous generations didn't have to consider. "Keeping up with the Joneses" has been a phenomenon for quite some time, of course - my mother-in-law tells a hilarious story about another woman she knew years ago who used to brag to other mothers about [cover your ears, Puritans] the size of her newborn baby boy's penis, of all things, so we can all be glad there's no evidence of that on Facebook. But it's hard enough to feel that comparative pressure and jealousy, whether it's about your home or your job or your children's accomplishments, without being bombarded by pictures of your neighbor's beautiful homes, shared newspaper articles about a former colleague's job accolades, and 152 likes on the video of your high school nemesis's soccer superstar son scoring the winning goal at Olympic Training Camp for Toddlers.

I've been really focused on the children-family-parenting part of the equation because, well, duh, but the universe has really been, to use my mom's phrase, sending me messages like golf ball-sized hail dropping from the sky to make sure I do not miss them. My heart has been aching for some friends and acquaintances in particular because I can see, from what they share and how they respond online, how much they are hurting - even if they're not aware of it - by comparing themselves to other parents and feeling that they come up short in some way. Our children, even if we know they shouldn't, feel like extensions of ourselves, and it can be gutwrenching painful sometimes to harbor jealousy and fear on behalf of these little people (who, by the way, often aren't jealous or afraid themselves). I was listening to an old episode of On Being a while ago and I heard Brene Brown* say these words: "It's really hard, and you can't have it both ways. [...] When it's really great and supported and successful, I want it to be about me. And when it sucks, I want it to be about the work." She was talking about tying your identity to your work, whatever that might mean. And if parenting is your work in any profound way, I think this resonates: when your children "succeed" in whatever sense that might be, you want it to be because of you. And when they "fail," you want it to be because of factors other than you. But it doesn't work that way. And because it's hard to be vulnerable, it can be hard to see your photo next to that other one in your feed and not take it personally.

For me, having two daughters with different talents and abilities and temperaments has helped me come to terms with this pretty easily - I know that it's silly to agonize over who walked first or talked first or who likes books more or who is more careful about paint color choices or using her silverware or wondering about space travel. But it can still be tough, on a low day, to see the amazing things that other people's children can do. Or, for that matter, to see the amazing things my friends and colleagues are doing while I'm wiping butts and picking up My Little Ponies. But I share pictures and stories of my children and my life with the people I love and care about because I want to be connected to them, so that must certainly be why other people are sharing, too. And focusing on that part - the love and the caring and the connection - makes it much easier to see those pictures and accolades and to be genuinely happy and interested and proud on their behalf.

If you don't know Dallas Clayton, you really should. His Instagram feed is one of the reasons I'm glad I'm on social media. He posted this image almost a year ago, and I still think about it all the time.

It's hard to think of a better mindset than that one, so it's one I'm always working towards.

There's a woman I've come to know, to some extent, online who for a long time was cultivating a large following by posting ethereal pictures of her children engaged in imaginative play in beautiful, natural settings with equally dreamy captions: "forever a nymph at heart," "sometimes prayer looks like play," "nothing gold can stay" (thanks to Robert Frost for that one). Nowadays, she posts the same ethereal pictures but with captions that convey the "harsh truths" of how difficult attachment parenting can be, a technique that seems to be winning over a new influx of followers amazed by her honesty. Both seem, to me, equally disingenuous: a carefully constructed online persona designed to attract followers eager to join in her pursuit of this soul-wrenchingly beautiful and painful journey of parenting in which one must give oneself, fully and completely, to another life.

And parenting is that, of course - but it is also not that. It is also not the carefully curated photos of other popular bloggers and instagrammers with their big white teeth and their children clad in the chicest of clothing with nary a stain in sight (all of my photos of Phoebe lately seem to contain evidence that I never wipe her face after she eats due to her perpetual five o'clock shadow of crumbs). But it is also not the post after post of complaints about lackadaisical husbands and kids who whine all day without stopping and how terrible motherhood is, either. And I guess, as I'm realizing more and more how much personal branding is a part of deciding what to share online - and trying to figure out what image I want to cultivate and how my personal life and the lives of my family members can best serve the purpose of "my brand" is feeling exhausting.

So because of and in spite of all that, I remain online. And I share the above photo with you, of me in a bizarre Ma Ingalls outfit, constructed by my oldest daughter, with my smudgy mascara in my dirty bathroom mirror in our apartment with terrible lighting and gray-painted walls. And I also share these images of my girls turning our windows into stained glass masterpieces which I took because I'm trying to teach myself to use my real camera to capture sunlight on their faces in a beautiful way. They're not perfect, but I'm learning.

And I share this quote from another podcast that resonated with me recently, again from Brene Brown: The only options are owning [our stories] or orphaning them, and I believe our self-worth lives inside the story, our story. And so we can walk into that story and own it, or we can stand outside of our truth, outside of our narrative, and we can hustle, and pretend and perfect and perform for our worthiness. So I do believe in owning the story. Having said that, I do believe we share our stories with the people who have earned the right to hear them, and the only stories I share with the public, in my writing or in my speaking, are stories I have really's the litmus test for me: I have really processed those stories, and my healing is not contingent upon your opinion of those stories. [...] I don't think it's in service of the reader, and I don't think it's in service of my own heart. (Brene Brown in Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons ep. 12)

And I share this largely unedited blog post, with the only answer to "why" being that I'd love to hear back from you. It's quiet here when I'm not pretending to be the Big Bad Wolf or reading Little House in the Big Woods to two pillow-fort building, tutu-wearing nymphs at heart.

[Postscript: this week, two other people spoke on this topic and, of course, did a much better job than I at getting to the heart of the matter. Kanesha Baynard's videos (1 and 2) and - you guessed it - Gretchen Rubin's podcast (which references Anne Lamott, so even more reason!) are all worth a watch or listen if you're interested in thinking more about the topic of comparison and jealousy.]

*I spent a ridiculously long time trying to add an accent to the second "e" in the name Brene and then just gave up. If you want to school me in Blogger or coding as to how to fix this, feel free!

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